The Arctic – a test laboratory in practice

The Arctic – a test laboratory in practice

The myth portrays the Arctic as a cold, inhospitable region with polar bears lying in wait. The fact is, however, that the Arctic is home to four million people and is experiencing strong economic growth. It also accounts for over ten per cent of the world’s petroleum production.

The pace of climate change in the polar regions is twice that of the rest of the world. At the same time interest in the abundant natural resources of the north is growing. “Climate change in the Arctic is also giving rise to a number of health issues, both medical and social,” states Birgitta Evengård, Professor of Infectious Diseases at Umeå University.

Numerous, complex health challenges

The Arctic is a region full of extremes. This includes not only the climate and the economy but the health of the local population as well.
Professor Evengård identifies several health problems that already exist or are about to emerge in the region. “Ensuring access to clean water and safe food will be problematic,” she says.
WCSJ_21_Birgitta_Evengaard_200x200.jpgPolluted water and food will in turn lead to infections among the population, requiring treatment using antibiotics. This could later result in the development of antibiotic resistance. If this were to enter into the food chain, resistance could be spread by birds, for example, over large areas of land.

There will be an increase in respiratory illnesses and allergies as well. The growth of new vegetation in areas that were once either tundra or covered in ice will release enormous amounts of pollen into the air which will become a major problem for the population in the Arctic. "We will also witness animal species, such as ticks, and bacteria spreading to new areas, with the potential to spread disease," asserts Professor Evengård. This is all due to changes in the climate. "In addition the suicide rate among the indigenous peoples is high," she says.

Ice melt means easier access


Climate change is also having an impact on economic development in the Arctic. “Ice melt is opening up new sea routes and making it easier to access the natural resources of the north,” says Joan Nymand Larsen, Senior Scientist at the Stefansson Arctic Institute in Akureyri, Iceland.

Control over natural resources

“Very little is known about how the local population will be affected by increased activity surrounding the area’s rich natural resources such as oil and gas, minerals, forests and fish. There is also the issue of the human rights of the indigenous peoples. They live in close contact with nature and are dependent on it, both culturally and as their means of existence. Arctic resources are controlled by outsiders, not by the local population,” Dr Nymand Larsen adds.

More research on the Arctic

The Arctic may be considered a test laboratory in practice for examining developments that will later emerge in the rest of the world. The challenges this region faces are extensive and how we tackle these will have global consequences. “We do not know enough about what is happening in the Arctic and the pressure is on to learn more,” says Professor Evengård. “We need to build up interdisciplinary expertise that can keep pace with developments,” she stresses. “Researchers have the important task of arriving at the correct facts and presenting them to decision-makers.” 

Dr Nymand Larsen and Professor Evengård were both recently invited to hold lectures at a seminar hosted by NordForsk during the World Conference of Science Journalists in Helsinki. The seminar focused on the need to study the Arctic in order to gain insight into developments that may also become a reality in other areas of the world.

NordForsk initiative on the Arcticcopy_of_WCSJ_20_Riitta_Mustonen_200x200.jpg

At the seminar, Riitta Mustonen from NordForsk informed participants about the planned research programme entitled “Responsible Development in the Arctic. Opportunities and Challenges – Pathways to Action”, which will issue a funding announcement at the beginning of 2014. “I am very pleased about this research initiative, particularly since it will also encompass health issues,” says Professor Evengård.



Joan Nymand Larsen is Senior Scientist at the Stefansson Arctic Institute in Akureyri, Iceland. She is also Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of Akureyri. Dr Nymand Larsen conducts research on Arctic economies and local communities in the north, among other areas. She plays an active role in the Nordic Council of Ministers’ Arctic Co-operation Programme as well. Dr Nymand Larsen studied at the University of Copenhagen and earned her Ph.D. in Economics at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada. She has previously served as president of the International Arctic Social Sciences Association (IASSA).

Birgitta Evengård is Professor of Infectious Diseases at Umeå University in Sweden. She is the first woman professor in Sweden to hold a chair in this field, i.e. a professor with research funding from her own university. Professor Evengård has worked in the field of infectious diseases for many years, including a number of years in Africa. In addition, she has studied gender equality issues at the County Council level in Stockholm. Professor Evengård has experience both as a professor and as a medical student at the Karolinska Institutet. She is also a member of an expert group under the Arctic Council.

Text: Anne B. Heieraas
Images: NordForsk / Terje Heiestad

Main image: Birgitta Evengård, Professor at Umeå University, Joan Nymand Larsen, Senior Scientist at the Stefansson Arctic Institute and Riitta Mustonen, Deputy Director of NordForsk.
Image 2: Professor Birgitta Evengård is interested in health challenges in the Arctic.
Image 3: Joan Nymand Larsen focuses on economic aspects of the Arctic.
Image 4: Riitta Mustonen of NordForsk, which has launched a research programme on the Arctic and will issue a call early 2014.

Read more about the challenges in the Arctic
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